By Israel HernandezThere is no law that says a student must go to college immediately after high school. Thousands of students every year choose to take a gap year — a year off from school with the intent of returning after. Here are five benefits of taking a gap year that can help you mature academically and personally.1. Gain invaluable life experienceFor many students, the college path can appear straight and narrow. When taking a gap year, you may learn that it’s up to you to set your own goals and due dates. Whether you are traveling abroad, road-tripping across the country, or just working two jobs in your hometown, learning responsibility and independence can give you an edge among your college peers.2. Find yourself (yes, I said it)As cliché as it may sound, one of the greatest benefits of taking a gap year is learning more about yourself. This isn’t just knowing whether you prefer sherbet to mint chip, it’s identifying what challenges you, what you excel at, your passions, and more. Taking a gap year gives you valuable time to test yourself in many ways. This doesn’t mean you will sit on the couch and be instantly flooded with wisdom. You’ll need to go out and make the most of your time by doing some self-reflection. Do your best to identify what makes you special and how you can apply this to your future goals.3. Give yourself time to figure out what you want“So, what do you want to be?” It’s a question every future college student is asked. It assumes that all young adults know what they want to do with the rest of their lives. While having a clear plan for the future is critical for success, you don’t have to know it the moment you graduate from high school.A gap year can offer you a rare opportunity to take a step back, take a deep breath, and figure out exactly what you want for your immediate and distant future. If there is one thing that can be said of all plans, it’s that they always change. A gap year can give you time to make refinements and changes to your plans, so that by the time you enter college, you’ll have a better idea of what you want to achieve.4. Never worry about wondering what if?Taking a gap year gives you an opportunity to try things that you may not have time for in college. If you are passionate about music, art, writing, or anything else, use your time off to pursue your passion. It could launch you into a new direction you may not have discovered without your gap year! Whatever the outcome, you will never have to wonder if you should or could have pursued something else.5. Enjoy yourselfTaking a gap year shouldn’t mean that you hold down three jobs and remain a homebody. It’s called a gap year because it’s implicit that you’ll return to school the following year, so take full advantage of it and enjoy yourself. Clearly, you will still have responsibilities and maybe even a job — but a gap year should absolutely include all the fun things that a full-time school and workload wouldn’t typically allow. Go to Coachella, take that cross-country road trip, train for that marathon you always wanted to do. When you’re back in school and constantly studying, you’ll be glad you did.Remember, taking a gap year is a rare opportunity that many of yours peers likely won’t have experienced. If you choose to take a gap year, make the most of it! The amount of growth you experience depends on your desire to challenge yourself in new and innovative ways.About the authorIsrael is a sergeant in the United States Marine Corps. He is a ground intelligence specialist stationed in San Diego. He loves surfing, breweries, and going to local shows. In fall 2016 he will be transferring to San Diego State University as a junior and will be earning a Bachelor of Science in health communications. With his degree, he hopes to work as a public health advocate.